Portion of Oregon Zoo train route could be turned into trail

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The Washington Park & Zoo Railway, shown in June 2017, is a 0.5-mile, 2.5-foot gauge railroad at the Oregon Zoo that opened in 1958. The primary equipment, dubbed the “Zooliner,” is a 5/8 scale replica of the Aerotrain, constructed by Northwest Marine Iron Works and H. Hirschberger Sheet Metal Co., both of Portland.
Scott A. Hartley
PORTLAND – A rails-to-trails battle is brewing in an unlikely place: the Oregon Zoo.

Last week, Portland Metro Council President Lynn Peterson said it is unlikely the Portland Zoo Railway – also known as the Washington Park & Zoo Railway – would resume operations between the Oregon Zoo and the International Rose Test Garden anytime soon. The 30-inch gauge railroad was shut down in 2013 for construction but a year later only a short stretch of track inside the zoo was returned to service. The 1.5-mile route to Washington Park has sat dormant ever since.

Officials said at the time the right-of-way through Washington Park needed extensive work and it only got worse in 2015 when a landslide covered the tracks near the Rose Garden Station.

During a Portland Civic Club meeting on April 19, a participant asked the Metro Council president if the beloved zoo train would return to the Rose Garden in the next few years. Peterson said unless money was found to rebuild the railroad, which some have estimated could cost more than $2 million, it was unlikely trains would be returning to the Rose Garden.

“I think I disappointed a whole lot of people today,” Peterson added, according to the Oregonian.

While Peterson’s comments seemed to spell the end for the popular attraction, Hova Najarian, communications manager for the Oregon Zoo, says no final decision has been made regarding the future of the train. Any decision about the train would have to include multiple stakeholders, including Metro, the regional government organization that oversees the zoo and the railroad, and Portland Parks & Recreation, which manages Washington Park.

“Both Metro and the city are committed to investigating all possibilities on the future of the line,” Najarian tells Trains News Wire.

One of those possibilities is replacing the narrow gauge railroad between the zoo and the Rose Garden with a walking and biking path or building a path alongside the tracks. That plan was outlined in a 2018 master plan for Washington Park that was adopted by the Portland City Council last year.

But many people want to see the entire Zoo Railway saved and restored. Dana Carstensen is a stationmaster on the Zoo Railway and president of the Friends of Washington Park & Zoo Railway. Last year, Carstensen started circulating an online petition to gather support for the railroad and it currently has nearly 30,000 signatures. Carstensen says the railroad is a “regional treasure” that deserves to be saved and that for many passengers to short loop around the zoo just isn’t enough.

“Countless times I've seen parents and grandparents take their children and grandchildren to ride the Washington Park & Zoo Railway so they too can experience what they experienced themselves as children,” Carstensen says. “Then I see the incredible disappointment when all they experience is a short 6-minute ride.”

The Friends group is seeking nonprofit status so that it can begin raising money to support its efforts. The group is also working on getting the railroad listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Although that designation would not save the railroad, it would help in the group’s efforts, Carstensen says.

Zoo officials have said in the past that they would be open to partnering with other groups to help fund a restoration of the entire route.

Carstensen is optimistic that his group will help find a way to save and restore the entire route and says he has requested a meeting with Peterson.

The Washington Park & Zoo Railway was built in the zoo in 1958 and extended to Washington Park in 1960. The Washington Park line was built with the help of four local railroads: the Southern Pacific surveyed the route; the Spokane, Portland & Seattle and Portland Terminal constructed it; and Union Pacific hauled ballast for the project free of charge. The railroad features a number of different trains, including an 4-4-0 steam locomotive and the “Zooliner,” a streamlined diesel based off the General Motors Aerotrain.

The Washington Park and Zoo Railway operates daily. For more information, go to oregonzoo.org.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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